The Hindu Education Plus and the U.S. Consulate General, Chennai hosted a joint Facebook wall chat on "Community Colleges in the United States" with EducationUSA advisers and U.S. Consulate General, Chennai Officers - Maya Sundararajan, Rumman Dastgir and Shanna Surendra answering education and visa questions. Here are edited excerpts from the chat.

Q: What are U.S. Community Colleges?

A: Community Colleges in the United States offer technical training and skill-oriented programs in a wide variety of disciplines. They are also called technical colleges or junior colleges and award an Associate’s Degree on completion of two years of undergraduate study. They also offer non-degree, certificate programs for shorter durations. Students can join a Community College after graduating from high school (on completion of 12th standard) or at any time in their careers for re-training or re-skilling in a completely new area.

On obtaining an Associate’s Degree, students are ready for any employment which does not require a four-year undergraduate degree. Alternately, students can transfer credits to a university or college to undertake two additional years of study in order to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree. Most Community Colleges have agreements with universities and colleges in the immediate vicinity or within the state, which makes the transfer of credits easier.

Q: How is it different from a regular college?

A: Community College programs are usually two-year programs and award an Associate’s Degree on completion; they also offer non-degree, certificate programs of short durations. Other colleges and universities offer four-year undergraduate programs and award a Bachelor’s Degree on completion; they also award Masters, Doctorate and Professional degrees such as Law and Medicine. Community Colleges do not offer these programs.

Community Colleges have an open-door admission policy and admission criteria is generally is less stringent when compared to four-year universities and colleges. Also, the cost of tuition is much lower than four-year universities and colleges.

Q: What are the benefits of studying in a Community College?

A: Community Colleges are uniquely positioned to design their curricula to match local labor market conditions, making them flexible and relevant to today’s economy and job market. They are open access institutions committed to providing job-relevant education and training to a broad population of students. Some Community College advantages include:

• Lower cost

• Opportunity to transfer to a four-year university or college

• Flexible English proficiency requirements

• Focus on teaching

• Small class size

• Practical training

• Program variety

• Student support services

• Additional year of Optional Practical Training (OPT) between earning Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees

To elaborate on that last point, OPT allows international students to work in the U.S. on an F1-visa for one year after completing every degree. This is applicable to students who have completed Associate’s Degree as well. Students can take advantage of the one year OPT to gain some work experience after obtaining the Associate’s Degree before moving on to complete another two years of study at a university or college to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree.

Q: What are the types of degrees awarded by Community Colleges?

A: Community Colleges offer:

• Associate’s Degrees: Two-year degrees in academic fields such as business or education

• Technical Certificates: One-two year programs (sometimes less) in specific specialties such as nursing (LPN), law enforcement, radiology, computer technologies, computer design, or medical assistant. Considered vocational certificates that prepare students for particular fields

• Intensive English Programs

• Limited four-year Bachelor’s Degrees

Q: Which are the major Community Colleges in the U.S. and what courses are offered at Community Colleges?

A: International students can find a program that fits their interests in any of the 1200 accredited Community Colleges. Associate’s Degrees are offered in all major fields of study – including political science, psychology, graphic design, accounting, business management, engineering, conservation, zoology, agriculture, carpentry, and hospitality management. The following websites are useful resources to identify suitable Community Colleges:

www.aacc.nche.edu/study-in-america

www.aacc.nche.edu/AboutCC/Pages/fastfactsfactsheet.aspx

www.petersons.com

Q: What are the eligibility requirements?

A: Completion of higher secondary school (12th standard) usually qualifies the students to apply for an Associate’s Degree at a Community College.

Q: How is the admission procedure? Should prospective students take any standardization tests?

A: Each Community College has its own admission process, so you should check the websites of your preferred colleges. However, the following are helpful general guidelines:

• It is best to start planning your admission to a Community College at least 12-18 months in advance of the fall semester (August of every year). This will give you adequate time to research your options, take the standardized tests (if required) and submit your application on time.

• Applying to a U.S. Community College is a process and as an international student you should engage with the International Admissions Office of the Community Colleges that you to which you are applying.

• Information on the application deadlines, application forms and other documents required will be available on the Community College website and there is usually a separate application form for international students. Some Community Colleges may be flexible and accept applications closer to the program start date, or may have rolling admissions. Rolling admission means that you can apply at any time during the year and will be considered for the next intake.

• International students may be required to submit English proficiency test scores – Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Community Colleges accept lower scores in English language proficiency or may also waive admission test scores. Whether or not you take TOEFL or IELTS, you may be required to take an English placement test that the college administers once you arrive on campus. Students with adequate English proficiency can begin the academic program immediately. Other students may be required to undertake an English as a Second Language (ESL) course before beginning academic course work.

• SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores are not a requirement for most Community Colleges. Some Community Colleges may require you to take placement tests on arrival at the campus if you have not taken the SAT. You must submit the academic transcripts and other documents in evidence of your previous education.

• You will sometimes be required to submit Letters of Recommendation. These are letters from people who know you well enough to comment on your academic and professional goals and other interests. You could obtain this from teachers, employers or other professional contacts.

• Some colleges may also require you to submit a personal essay on a specific topic or a topic of your choice.

• You must also provide a Statement of Financial Support, which is a document certifying that you have sufficient funds to cover the tuition and living expenses while studying in the United States.

• You must share information about extra-curricular activities, hobbies and interests with the admissions officials. Even if the application form does not have a column to elicit this information, you could provide this in order to add value to your application.

• Depending on the Community College, you may be asked to participate in a telephone interview as well.

Q: Are the Community Colleges government funded?

A: There are public-funded Community Colleges as well as independently-run Community Colleges.

Q: How much is the approximate expense for studying at a Community College?

A: The tuition and fees at U.S. Community Colleges are at least 50 percent lower than four year colleges and universities. It is difficult to generalize the cost as this varies widely. In general, the tuition could range from $7000 to $15,000 or higher per year. It is best to check the websites of your chosen colleges for accurate details.

If you intend to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree by transferring to a four-year university or college, you can significantly lower the cost of your Bachelor’s Degree by taking the first two years at a Community College.

Q: Do the students have any opportunity for scholarships at Community Colleges?

A: The International Students Office or Admissions Office will be able to advise if they have scholarships for international students. You could look for this information on the college website under “Scholarships” or “Financial Aid.” Scholarships may also be awarded after the first year of study depending on the academic achievements.

Q: Are the students allowed to work part time during their study at Community Colleges?

A: International students with admission to U.S. Community Colleges should obtain an F1 student visa for entry into the United States. F1 visa students can undertake work on campus only up to 20 hours per week while college is in session. However, during vacation when the college is not in session, students may be allowed to work full time on campus, provided you are registered for classes in the following semester.

On completion of an Associate’s Degree, F1 visa students can work up to one year in the field related to their study through the Optional Practical Training program. You should consult the International Student Advisor at your college with regard to this.

Q: What are the important factors one should bear in mind while choosing a Community College?

A: Ensure that the Community College is regionally accredited in order to be sure of the quality of programs and to transfer credits to a four-year college or university. Four year colleges and universities accept transfer credits only from accredited Community Colleges. You could check the accreditation status on the website of Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

At the time of applying, you should ask for the list of four year universities and colleges with which the Community College has agreements for credit transfer. If you intend to transfer, it is important that you discuss this with the International Admissions Office at the time of applying so that you are aware of the requirements for transferring/admission to a four year college/university after completing your two-year program.

Not all Community Colleges have residential facilities for their students, so students may have to live with relatives or find their own housing close to the Community College. Please check the level of support provided by the International Student Officeand whether accommodation is available on campus or off-campus. Most Community Colleges have the required facilities to support students with disabilities. You should check with the Admissions Office with regard to this.

Q: How can one get a transfer from a Community College to a four-year Bachelor’s program at a university or college?

A: Students can transfer an Associate’s Degree to a four-year university or college and undertake two more years of study at the university or college in order to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree. Credits earned at accredited Community Colleges are accepted for transfer into almost all four year college and university Bachelor’s programs, and it is generally easier to transfer into a university or college within the same state. Sometimes four year universities and colleges offer guaranteed admission into certain programs if the student maintains a certain minimum GPA at the Community College. Students intending to transfer should discuss this with the International Admissions Office at the time of applying so that they are aware of the requirements for transferring/admission to a four year college/university after completing the two year program.

Students who undertake two years of study at a Community College and then transfer into a four year university or college for the subsequent two years of a Bachelor’s Degree reduce the cost of undergraduate (Bachelor’s) education substantially. A useful tip is to identify the U.S. university from which you wish to get an undergraduate degree and then check Community Colleges with which it has an agreement and then discuss your options with the International Admissions Office of the Community College. Some Community Colleges are now also offering Bachelor’s Degrees in a limited number of majors.

Q: What are the job prospects for the students in Community Colleges?

A: Community Colleges are committed to preparing their students to fill in the employment requirements of the industries and companies in the immediate vicinity. So most Community Colleges work closely with local employers and partner with them to design course materials that lead to industry-recognized certificates and degrees.

There are a lot of contextual factors that will determine how successful you will be in the job market. Most colleges in the U.S. have a dedicated career guidance center that can support and advise you regarding job searches after you complete your program.

Q: Hello sir, I found different schools with the same names, how can I choose the right college?

A: Great question! Sometimes schools have very similar names (or nicknames) but if you check a reputable site like Peterson's you'll see a comprehensive list of the official school names.

Q: Can a disabled/physically challenged student requiring assistance study in the U.S. with a parent accompanying to take care of him. What are the options for Master's in CSE? Which are the universities offering good faculties?

A: The United States is a country of equal opportunities and is one of the most accessible countries for people with disabilities. Students with disabilities who require personal assistance should refer to Mobility International’s USA website: http://www.miusa.org/plan/coming-to-usa.

As with any student, students with disabilities may choose colleges/universities based on location, cost, quality of programs and other factors before they consider their disability. Community Colleges are an excellent choice for people with disabilities as they offer smaller classes, individualized attention and a supportive atmosphere. Students may wish to inquire with the international office or the disability office about disability-related services on campus and programs available.

It is important that students with disabilities procure a health insurance policy to cover their stay in the United States. Individuals who need to return to their home countries periodically for medical care should be aware of the program and visa requirements regarding leaving and re-entering the United States.

Q: If we were to be admitted to a Community College, is it possible to transfer to an Ivy League university after sophomore year?

A: Community Colleges have articulation agreements with universities and colleges in their regions and states. You should check with the specific universities and Community Colleges on their transfer requirements.

Q: I am presently employed and have a Master’s Degree in power systems and 30 years of experience in Industries Department, and would like to take short-term courses (six months-1 year) in the renewable energy field, concentrating on solar and wind energy. These fields have a good future in India and I would like become a consultant for my career. Please suggest some good Community Colleges in this field, as these courses are not available in India.

A: Community Colleges offer working professionals an opportunity to update their skills or train in a new area of work. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has a Study in America website for international students with lists of Community Colleges accredited and approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Please check Study in America and use their search option to find schools based on academic programs or by region.

Costs of programs vary depending on the college, program and location. However, please note that Community Colleges are generally much less expensive than traditional universities and colleges.

Q: Would like to know if Community College applications have a high visa rejection rate?

A: In response to your questions about visa rejection rates for students applying to attend Community Colleges - not at all! The majority of student visa applications are approved. The process to apply for a visa to attend Community College is the same as any other student visa. Our website has a lot of information on the visa application process.

Q: I did my B.E Electronics and Instrumentation and MSc in Information Systems from and now work for a software company in Hyderabad. Should I apply for a Master’s Degree in Computer Science in the U.S. at this stage, or is it too late? What is the job market now for Indians and would you recommend I do the Master’s Degree here in India, while continuing to work? If the U.S. is a good option, what are some good U.S. colleges or universities that have low fees but offer good post-graduate job prospects? Lastly, do colleges arrange for campus job placements, and if so, are they competitive?

A: You will be the best judge of whether to pursue higher studies or not based on your personal circumstances. If you wish to study in the U.S., please contact the EducationUSA center in Hyderabad for advice. We do not provide guidance on finding employment. Getting a job depends on many factors – the most important of which is how you demonstrate your individual skills and capabilities at a job interview and your academic performance. Please see the answers related to Community Colleges for your additional questions.

Community Colleges offer Associate's Degrees and Certificate programs; some even offer limited undergraduate programs. Community Colleges do not offer Master’s or PhD programs. Those wanting to pursue such programs should apply to U.S. universities and colleges.

Q: Hello can I get a scholarship to study in United States?

A: Thank you for your question on funding your higher education in the U.S. This is an important question and we get this frequently from international applicants. There are many types of funding available to international students, including scholarships, tuition waivers (partial or full), assistantships, and fellowships. Students should check eligibility and qualification requirements for these funding options and visit this website to understand more about different types of funding. Information about available scholarships and funding is also listed on individual university websites. Please check with the International Admissions Office for scholarships or tuition waivers for which international students may apply. Some universities may require separate applications and deadlines for scholarships, while others automatically consider all international applicants for their scholarships.

Scholarships and funding are competitive and depend on factors including field of study and the individual’s background. Many students may not receive financial aid at the time of admission, but may become eligible after the first semester or the first year, depending on academic performance.

Please visit: http://www.educationusa.info/5_steps_to_study/graduate_step_3_make_your_budget.php#top for information about scholarship search engines that allow you to search for funding based on your discipline of study.

There are other competitive scholarships that Indian students may be eligible for, including travel grants for studying abroad and special funding for female international students. Some examples include the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Funding and Awards: http://www.aauw.org/what-we-do/educational-funding-and-awards/international-fellowships/ and the TOEFL Scholarship Program in India: http://www.ets.org/toefl/scholarships/india.

Other helpful websites include:

http://www.akdn.org/akf_scholarships.asp

http://inlaksfoundation.org/

http://www.dorabjitatatrust.org/id/72/J.N.%20Tata%20Endowment%20for%20the%20Higher%20Education%20of%20Indians/

http://pg.nsfoundation.co.in

We do not endorse any of the organizations listed here and provide this information only for reference.

Q: Can you kindly explain the advantages of studying at a good university abroad, rather than staying in India for the same academic program?

A: Studying in another country pushes you out of your comfort zone and broadens your perspective. American classrooms bring together people from diverse backgrounds from a wide range of countries, and this is what is unique about U.S. higher education. You will also have access to cutting edge technology and high quality academic programs.

Q: My daughter is in her 12th standard at school and will take her final exams March 2015. She intends to pursue undergraduate medical course in the U.S. Can you please let us know the procedure, criteria, process and entrance examinations she would need for these studies?

A: To pursue medical courses in the U.S., your daughter would first need to complete a four-year Bachelor’s (undergraduate) degree in any discipline with required courses in the biological sciences, chemistry, mathematics, behavioral and social sciences from an accredited U.S. university. For admission to an undergraduate program in the U.S., she should take standardized tests such as the SAT or the American College Test (ACT) and TOEFL and follow the application procedures to U.S. universities.

On completion of the undergraduate degree, students aspiring to attend medical school should take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

Q: After joining a particular university, can I apply to another university after my first semester and transfer there? If so, will my first semester grades be transferred to the next university? Would I be asked to finish all four semesters with them, or just the remaining three?

A: Credit transfer depends on individual universities and programs. Generally, students who wish to transfer from one university to another should discuss their options in advance with the International Admissions Office at those universities or colleges.

Q: When do most admissions take place, during Fall admission or Spring admission? When do most of the top universities take admissions?

A: International students prefer to apply for the Fall admission since scholarships and funding options are likely to be more plentiful than for Spring admission.

Q: I am a student of 12th grade student studying commerce and mathematics. After completing my undergraduate degree in India (three years), I would like to pursue my education in the U.S., preferably an MBA. Will the U.S. university expect four years of higher education after 12th grade? Kindly suggest other areas I could pursue in the finance field in the U.S., other than an MBA.

A: Most U.S. universities require a four-year undergraduate degree. However, some U.S. universities accept the Indian three-year programs. You should check with the international admission office of the universities to which you intend to apply.

Q: Do Cambridge A-level holders require the SAT for admission into undergraduate courses in the U.S.?

A: Most U.S. universities and colleges want to see either SAT or ACT scores for admission to their undergraduate programs, regardless of what you studied in India (IB, A-levels, CBSE, ISC or the state board exam). There are some U.S. colleges that do not need SAT/ACT scores, and these are called “test optional colleges.” A list of test optional colleges can be found at: http://fairtest.org/university/optional

Q: I am doing my second year English literature course. Currently, I am interested in pursuing pursue my higher education in psychology. Will U.S. universities expect me to have a degree in psychology and do they offer integrated courses in psychology for those without a psychology undergraduate degree?

A: One of the best advantages of the U.S. higher education system is the high level of flexibility allowing students to explore a wide range of interests and subjects. Most U.S. universities are flexible in not requiring an undergraduate degree in the same discipline as the Master’s Degree for which you are applying. Some universities may require certain prerequisite course credits, or you may be required to take additional courses and/or credits. University admission ultimately rests with the admissions office and would be based on your overall profile and complimentary knowledge and skills that you will bring to the program. Bear in mind that you need to select from U.S. universities accepting three year undergraduate degrees or you may need to complete a fourth year of study (after your three year degree) before applying to U.S. Master’s programs.

Q: I am pursuing my final year of BTech. What is the difference between MTech graduation and Master’s of Science (MS) degree graduation? Is a MS certificate recognized by Indian companies? What are my job opportunities after completing the MS in that field?

A: The MTech degree offered by Indian universities and the MS degree offered by U.S. universities/colleges are both Master’s Degree programs and are very similar to each other. The large numbers of students who have studied in the U.S. and are now working in India indicate that most Indian companies recognize the U.S. university MS degree. We do not advise or provide guidance on finding employment.

Q: I have completed my MSc clinical nutrition. What are the openings for sports nutrition courses that are offered in the U.S. and related nutrition courses after post graduate course?

A: U.S. universities and colleges offer a wide range of programs in every discipline imaginable. You can use the search tool in www.petersons.com to look up U.S. universities that offer programs on nutrition and related fields. You can also contact your nearest EducationUSA center for one-on-one advice.

And we answered some visa questions too...

Q: I am an international student now in the U.S. and will receive my undergraduate degree in spring 2015 and would like to apply for U.S. graduate programs the following fall. Are the procedures and application rules for visas the same for me, as they are to other international students coming to the U.S. for graduate programs? I have my GRE scores and am not sure of the visa application procedures once I gain admission to a U.S. university.

A: Very specific and great question! Yes, your existing F visa is only valid for the program on your original I‐20. For a new program with a new I-20, you need a new visa. The process is relatively straightforward and the majority of students are approved. First, get accepted at a U.S. university and then obtain an I-20 form from that university. Next, pay the Student and Exchange Visitor Program System (SEVIS) registration fee with the Department of Homeland Security, complete the visa application and then schedule your visa interview at any of the U.S. consulates in India. The visa interview process will last approximately 30 minutes and the current wait time for getting an interview now averages five days. Best of luck!

Q: Hello, I have been admitted to USF Tampa for the 2015 Spring semester and would like to know a few details regarding the financial documents to be shown for my visa interview. My I-20 prescribed fee for one year is $39,000 and my course duration is one and one half years (MS in MIS - all prerequisites waived). Should I show liquid assets in the amount of $20000, as my bank has granted $40000 as educational loan? How can I show collateral properties worth the amount? If I am only required to show liquid assets, can they be deposits jointly in my mother and grandmother’s names or should they exclusively be in my parents or sponsors name? Can relatives other than parents be considered dependable sponsors by the U.S. Consulate? Please guide me regarding this and thank you for your time.

A: What a popular question! Student visa applicants need to be able to show they have sufficient funds to pay for their first year of studies and have access to additional funds to cover the cost of subsequent years for their studies in the U.S. Financial resources can include help from family, personal savings, education loans, scholarships, or other assets. Visa officers may not look at documents applicants bring with them to the visa interview, but you may be asked to summarize your financial situation orally. For more information on required documents when applying for a student visa, visit this website.

Q: Is there specific student visa quota for Indians, or do the numbers vary depending on visa applications and merits?

A: No, there is no quota for F-1 student visas at all. The majority of our F-1 visa applicants are approved!

Q: Do Community College applicants have a high visa rejection rate? What are common brand issues that Community Colleges face and what are the advantages of pursing studies at a Community College?

A: In response to your question about visa rejection rates for students applying to attend Community Colleges - not at all! The majority of student visa applications are approved. Please refer to earlier questions about Community College advantages.

Q: My husband already has an L1B visa and I will soon travel with an L2 visa but would like to attend a U.S. university (and have taken the GRE already). Is it easier to convert my L2 to a student visa than to apply for a first time student visa?

A: Within the U.S. you have to work with United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) to receive an adjustment of status. Alternately, if you leave the U.S., you can apply for the F-1 visa at any U.S. consulate or embassy before you return to the U.S. Great to hear that you are considering joining the nearly one lakh Indians who study in the U.S. each year!

Q: I have met with an accident in my engineering studies, and have taken a year off to heal. During this time my grade and coursework suffered. I applied for a student visa in 2010 and was rejected three times. I was told that my grades were very low and that contributed to my visa denial. I have worked for three years now at a multi-national corporation and would like to know what my changes are now of getting a visa for later in 2014?

A: Each time you apply for a visa your case is given a fresh look, but you must prove your qualifications for the visa during the interview. We will consider things like your ties to India, your future plans, and your preparation for your course of study.

Q: I have completed my Bachelor of Arts honors in business studies in India. I have lived in India for two years and my family has now settled in India. I would like to go to the U.S. for further studies and already have my I-20 form from my university. Can you please tell me if I will require the same documents that an India would when I apply for my visa, or are there additional documents required?

A: Congrats on your admission to a U.S. university! The requirements are the same for all student visa applicants: you need to bring the I-20, the SEVIS fee receipt, and the DS-160 confirmation page. All of this information is available on our website at travel.state.gov.

Q: My brother is working for LSI and has applied for an H-1B. I am applying for F-1 visa and wonder if there will be any problems with getting my visa because of his status?

A: You won’t have any problem because of your brother’s visa application. All visa applications are given the same consideration.

Q: I am in my final year of my B.E. Mechanical and would like to get a Master’s Degree in Aerospace. Is it difficult to get an F-1 visa for this field and is aerospace considered differently from other fields in the visa process? What are the important documents I should carry to the consulate?

A: One subject or field is not considered differently than another. What matters is your ability to explain your plans and your preparation for study in the U.S. Remember to start early in your planning, since the university application process can be lengthy. Please check our website and travel.state.gov for details on the interview process.

Q: I would like to know the necessary documents that should/could be presented if I believe that my F-1 needs a 221(g) clearance on the basis of TAL?

A: If a visa application is refused under section 221(g), the details will be explained to the applicant at the visa interview.

Q: I have just received my H-1 visa stamp. I was married last week and would like to have my wife apply for an H-4 visa and want to know if she is allowed to study in the U.S.

A: Your wife must apply for the H-4 visa herself, you cannot apply for her. H-4 visa holders may study in the U.S., but please check with DHS for full details.

For more information and specific advice, students and parents can contact the EducationUSA Center at the US-India Educational Foundation vie phone at. 044-28574134 or email: usiefchennai@usief.org.in; or look up your nearest EducationUSA center on www.usief.org.in.

Our advising sessions and interesting information on U.S. university admission processes, deadlines and scholarships are announced regularly on the EducationUSA Chennai Facebook page: www.facebook.com/EducationUSAChennai .

For visa-related questions, we encourage you to first visit our website, http://chennai.usconsulate.gov and also http://travel.state.gov . As always, we offer visa and education information and chats regularly on our social media sites – and https://twitter.com/USAndChennai.